Should white balance setups be totally ignored in the taking of RAW photographs?

I was asked by some friends that whether the white balance setups can be totally neglected when taking RAW photos. I believe this may also be one of the puzzles by many others during their process of gradual elevation.

Undauntedly, white balance is of great importance to a good photo, because white balance determines wither the colors are correct, and it also decided the style of a photo’s tone. Nevertheless, I hold that white balance is a lower stream operation of RAW — RAW upper stream and RAW lower stream are the extremely important concepts on digital photography, which is especially true of those taking photos in the format of RAW; simply put, if what you take is JPEG or TIFF, then, in the late processing, it would be impossible to alter the white balance. You can conduct modifications on the white balance through software; however, fundamentally, this is a result obtained by altering the hue, instead of truly changing the photo’s white balance. This is because white balance is the information embedded inside JPEG. The 5200K at the time of your photo-taking will remain 5200K, with no way of changing it during the late stage.

However, if you take a RAW, the circumstance will be different. Almost all the RAW processing software allows you to alter the RAW photo’s white balance. During photo-taking, the color temperature was 5200K, and you can freely elevate it to 6500K during the late stage or reduce it to 3200K. Lightroom’s white balance commands are different on the displays of JPEG and RAW. The former displays a value with 0 as the center, while the latter displays the photo’s actual color temperature.

Here comes a question, since it is possible to alter the color temperature of the RAW photos at will, then, is it possible to totally neglect white balance when taking RAW photos?

The answer is: No!

If you take your photo RAW, the camera’s configuration files—such as Nikon’s optimized calibration, Canon’s photos styles—are invalid on the photos you took, because they are the absolute lower stream operations of RAW. Nevertheless, you still need to set up a rational value, with the purpose of better judging the photographic effects of your photos’. That is to say although the RAW’s lower stream operations are not embedded into the RAW photos, they can still play their roles during the process of photo-taking through some other means. Among them, white balance may be the RAW lower stream operation that exerts the biggest impacts on photo-taking.

The adjustments of white balance will alter the photo’s tone; but this will affect the photo’s color—the color we talk about is actually the combination of the hue, saturation and brightness, and this is the mechanism for our using of HSL panel in the Lightroom, and it is also the reason why I suggest that those who are insensitive to colors set the color panel of the Photoshop as HSB rather than RGB. Colors will significantly impact the photo’s brightness, and the extremely deviated colors will result in tremendously distorted tone performance.

During the process of photo-taking, exposure is one of the most important links. If you the camera you used features Automatic Metering — the choice made by us most of the time–then, your setups of white balance will affect your photo’s metering. If white balance is set up very imprecisely, then, the camera’s metering will also tend to be deviating from the actual values, thus leading to exposure inaccuracy. Even when manual exposure mode is adopted, I think most people would view the exposure effects through the histogram. Due to your inaccurate white balance, the histogram you see fails to reflect the true brightness you need — assume the photo’s highlight portion happens to fall on the 250 location of the brightness, but your shooting color temperature was obviously lower; then, when you elevate the color temperature from 3200K to 6500K in the late stage, there may be a multitude of areas with over-exposures; however, the result of your shooting at that time led you to believe the exposure was correct.

Therefore, this the answer to this question hinges on your conception on brightness and color, and it depends on whether you have a grasp of the influence of white balance on tone distribution. As a matter of fact, the reason is very simple: in the taking of a RAW photo, the color temperature is altered in the Lightroom, AC or other software and the changes feature large amplitudes; you can easily spot the changes of the histogram, as well as the changes in the photo’s brightness.

Indeed, white balance is really RAW’s lower stream operation; however, during your photo-taking, you should pay attention to the setups of white balance. Under most circumstances, auto white balance(AWB) will provide you with off-limit setups, but RAW grants you with a bigger space for the late adjustments, thus making auto white balance suitable for the shooting of the most RAW formats. Nevertheless, on some occasions, for example an environment facing the incandescent lighting, the use of corresponding setups of the white balance color temperature would be better. Under an ideal circumstance, based on the self-defined white balance which is set up according to the environment, it is possible to achieve the most accurate exposure. Although there is no need to be too particular about perfection, we should at least be alerted by this and have some understandings.

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